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The Future of Soft Power

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The Future of Soft Power

This weekend, the President of the United States held a badly attended rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On the other side of the world,...

5 Minutes Read

This weekend, the President of the United States held a badly attended rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On the other side of the world, soldiers from India and China snarled at each across an ill-defined border high up a mountainous pass. And in your kids’ bedrooms, your little angels made memes of themselves dancing and lip syncing and playing the fool.

The misadventures of POTUS were meat and drink for the media (of the mainstream and social variety). The punch up got lots of traction amongst geo-political wonks. And at your place, I can imagine you rolling your eyes as your kids failed to lift their eyes from their screens.

Just another weekend in the crazy madhouse that is Earth 2020, huh …

What is less apparent however, is that all three of these scenes are connected in ways that are, at first, not obvious, but once noticed, hard to ignore.

Most plainly, China is signaling to the world that it will increasingly be comfortable to assertively use its military might. Less apparent, but ultimately more important, is that Donald Trump’s rally was derailed by young people in bedrooms using Chinese technology. Namely, TikTok.

Since its launch in 2017, TikTok has exploded and in short order become the most popular app in the world. You – person over 30 reading this – have probably heard of it, but probably never used it. You – person over 40 with kids – have probably seen your kids using it, but probably have no idea what it is.

If that is the case, this is as good a primer as I have seen https://pando.com/2020/06/12/rise-tiktok-and-understanding-its-parent-company-bytedance/

Without expressing an opinion on the rise of China, the state of the west, or debating whether Thucydides was right, the weekend has shown us something. That, emerging, is an alternative to the west’s “soft-power” – the movies and music of Hollywood and Memphis, the theatre of London, the opera of Bayreuth - that has been as important to the dominance of the G7 these last 70 years as NATO, the UN, and the IMF.

Since Nixon went to China in 1972, it has been obvious that China would, one day, again be a force on the world stage. What has been missing in its ascendancy so far though has been a reason for the rest of the world to love it. Of course, there are Sinophiles (many at the Financial Times) but they are in a very small minority. Few ordinary folks in middle England or “Murica” have much sense of China at all, let alone cause to be inspired or impressed by it, or a longing to visit. Let alone a longing to be Chinese.

In the first waves of globalization, many local people in India or Nigeria or Mexico fell in love with Dickens, Shakespeare, Cervantes, W.G. Grace, and longed to visit Stratford Upon Avon, the Prado, or Lords as a result. America’s rise in the 20th century had as much to do with global swooning at Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley as it did with the Normandy landings, and millions jetted to the Sands or to Graceland to live out fantasies they had seen on the silver screen. After WWII, England lost an empire but found a new role as a fountainhead of cool – the Beatles, the Stones, punk, Oasis, David Beckham – which kept the tills of Carnaby Street and Harrods ringing long after it had lost its place atop Pax Britannica.

While hard power ruled the head, soft power ruled the hearts. Young people in foggy London dreamed of California and young people in foggy San Francisco dreamed of Liverpool.

Few, so far, have dreamed of Haidian Qu. But that is about to change, and, as the lockdown eases, the streets around ByteDance’s HQ in northwest Beijing, are bound to see more and more westerners curious to check out where the Tik is Toking. Initially it will be an avant-garde, analogous to Christopher Isherwood in Santa Monica in the 1950’s. But then the numbers will swell, and as those next-gen coders and hipsters move back and forward between Beijing Capital International Airport and Heathrow and JFK and LAX and CDG, China’s soft-power will expand and migrate and infuse its way into the bloodstream of the world.

What will happen then? Who knows. But whatever happens it will be central to the future of work. As we’ve seen these last 25 years, the norms of the web used for fun become the norms of the web used for work 10 years later. Would we have Slack, social media, Salesforce.com, Dropbox, Microsoft Teams without The Pirate Bay, eBay, Napster, Craigslist, Yahoo!, Wikipedia, Tumblr, Reddit, Pinterest, Buzzfeed, AOL? In a word, no.

The norms of TikTok – being developed by Chinese engineers using AI in ways most western businesses are entirely unaware of – will, in time, become the norms of work in London and NYC and San Francisco in the years to come.

By then Chinese hard power will undoubtedly be harder, but its soft power will be key to its future. And yours. And to a future of work that, one hopes, works.


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